Cessnock City Council requests briefing with Deputy Premier John Barilaro MP to outline plans for coal exploration in Wollombi Valley

HISTORIC: The main street of Wollombi. Picture: Scott Bevan

HISTORIC: The main street of Wollombi. Picture: Scott Bevan

The timing of Cessnock City Council's Local Strategic Planning Statement could not have come at a better time for the Wollombi Valley.

Wollombi's unique heritage and its importance as a tourism destination is recognised in the statement, which was adopted by the council on June 17.

Exactly a week later, the NSW Government revealed its Strategic Statement on Coal Exploration and Mining, which has earmarked about 178 square kilometres between Wollombi and Broke as potential area for coal exploration.

The news came as a shock to many, including Cessnock mayor Bob Pynsent.

Cr Pynsent raised his concerns about the plan in a mayoral minute at last Wednesday's council meeting, which received unanimous support from councillors.

Council will write to Deputy Premier John Barilaro to note its concerns about Wollombi's inclusion in the plan, and seeking a briefing with Mr Barilaro to provide more information on the nature of the mining and the specific boundaries.

Mr Barilaro unveiled the strategic statement in the Hunter Valley on June 24, saying he had promised at last year's state election to make NSW the "number one destination for mining investment", and this policy continued that "vision and bold approach".

MAP: The NSW Government's Strategic Statement on Coal Exploration and Mining has identified 178 square kilometres near Wollombi as a potential release area for coal exploration.

MAP: The NSW Government's Strategic Statement on Coal Exploration and Mining has identified 178 square kilometres near Wollombi as a potential release area for coal exploration.

Cr Pynsent said council acknowledges the importance and economic benefit of coal mining within the Cessnock local government area and supports its continuation and establishment in other "more conducive" locations.

But he said it was "extremely concerning" that Wollombi had been identified as a potential release area.

"The unique heritage and national significance within the Wollombi Valley must be protected," Cr Pynsent said.

"We recognise this in our Local Strategic Planning Statement 2036 and want to ensure this remains untouched.

"It's extremely concerning that Wollombi Valley has been identified as a potential area for release for coal exploration.

"Coal mining of course has a place in the Cessnock local government area, but it's not in the Wollombi Valley."

Cr Pynsent said the strategic statement has "created anxieties for the local community", and that council shares those concerns and wants to seek clarification from the NSW Government.

Wollombi Valley Progress Association president Simone Smith said it was "extremely pleasing and reassuring" for the Wollombi community to have the council's support.

Ms Smith said Wollombi residents made a great contribution to the council's Local Strategic Planning Statement, and that statement is now even more meaningful.

She said the Wollombi Valley's Aboriginal and colonial heritage, state forests and national parks made it "environmentally and culturally sensitive, and worth preserving".

"I can't see how, objectively, a coal mine would support our local businesses and tourism," she said.

Ms Smith said the Wollombi Valley has been through a lot recently, from drought, to bushfires and the COVID-19 pandemic, and now the potential of coal mining has created a lot of uncertainty in the community.

"We are hoping to clear up the uncertainty, and the negative impacts of that uncertainty," she said.

"The support of council means a lot, on those grounds."

TOUGH YEAR: Wollombi was surrounded by bushfires during the summer of 2019-2020, and COVID-19 restrictions have since taken their toll on local tourism operators. Picture: Krystal Sellars

TOUGH YEAR: Wollombi was surrounded by bushfires during the summer of 2019-2020, and COVID-19 restrictions have since taken their toll on local tourism operators. Picture: Krystal Sellars

Also at last Wednesday's meeting, council endorsed a list of six projects it will submit for funding under the latest round of the NSW Government's Resource for Regions program.

The program aims to support the ongoing prosperity of mining-affected local government areas in regional NSW by using mining royalties to fund infrastructure projects and community programs.

The funding model was overhauled this year, with each of the 24 eligible LGAs to receives $1 million, and a further $26 million divided between each LGA, scaled on the effect of mining in the area.

Cessnock council has received an allocation of $1,312,198 this year. Its wish list includes a splash pad at Cessnock Pool ($680,000), the third stage of the Kurri Kurri CBD upgrade ($482,198), a youth driver training program ($100,000) and planning for the Richmond Vale Rail Trail project ($50,000).

It has also submitted two projects in addition to its allocated amount - $500,000 for the redesign of the Cessnock Performing Arts Centre Cultural Hub, and $900,000 towards the Cessnock Airport upgrade.

Cessnock first became eligible to apply for Resources for Regions funding in 2014. Local projects to receive funding under the program have included Bridges Hill Park, the Cessnock and Kurri Kurri CBD upgrades and the Hermitage Road cycleway.

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